It has been arguably the most topsy-turvy season in the 14 years of the Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale franchise.
Man-games lost to injuries and call-ups are at an all-time high, causing disruptions to continuity and chemistry.
But one person’s loss is another’s gain, and while the Whale is without eight players, including their two purest goal-scorers, All-Star Jeremy Williams and Chad Kolarik, and had to play the last two games a man short, they’re on a “topsy” heading into the last five weeks of the season.
The Whale beat their two closest foes in the Atlantic Division playoff chase three times with two dramatic wins over the Springfield Falcons and a rout of the Worcester Sharks. The team is 24-13-0-3 since being rebranded as the Connecticut Whale on Nov. 27 after starting the season 6-11-2-3 as the Wolf Pack, including a team-record, nine-game losing streak (0-7-0-2).
Veteran defenseman Wade Redden has been part of plenty of playoff highs and lows, and he likes what he saw starting the final quarter of the season.
“The last three games we’ve had guys really step up and have big efforts,” Redden said after his first two-goal game since before the NHL lockout six years ago in a 7-2 win over the Sharks on Sunday. “Guys have come together and played so hard every shift, and I think that’s the key this time of the season, just going and battling all the time. We didn’t get rewarded a lot, just kind of squeaked out the last two games (Wednesday and Saturday), but (Sunday) they started going in for us, so I think that’s a good sign.
“The first line (Brodie Dupont-Kris Newbury-Dale Weise) obviously paced the way, but all the guys played hard, so if we get everyone battling, we’re going to get our chances. We battled hard the first couple of periods (Sunday), they had some chances but we came back with some big goals after they scored to get the two-goal cushion. That always makes it easier to play when you’ve got a little cushion. It takes the pressure off everyone a little bit.”
The Whale faced constant pressure during 3-2 and 2-1 victories over the Falcons, trailing after two periods in each game before prevailing on goals by newcomers John Mitchell with 7.7 seconds left in regulation and defensemen Blake Parlett with 27.7 seconds left in overtime. Mitchell arrived from the Toronto Maple Leafs just in time as the Whale had lost their top four centers – Newbury (recall to the New York Rangers), Tim Kennedy (trade to Florida Panthers), Todd White (concussion) and Ryan Garlock (back). But Newbury was reassigned on Thursday and took over the team scoring lead (45 points) from Williams, while versatile Kelsey Tessier and Oren Eizenman, as well as Francis Lemieux, signed to a professional tryout contract Feb. 28 while leading the ECHL in scoring, helped fill the void at center.
“It was a big win on the road against a team we were tied with, so I was happy with the guys,” coach Ken Gernander said Sunday after the Whale moved two points ahead of the Sharks in the battle for the third and final guaranteed playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. “The guys know the situation, but you remind them because that’s part of what you do. But that’s just kind of a little kicker at the end. You go over what you need to do, what you want to accomplish, special teams or whatever, and then say, ‘Now remember, boys, this is for a big two points.’
“It’s that time of year where teams are missing players, so you do what you do. But I’m happy with the guys getting six big points this week against our nearest opponents in the standings. I think that’s a pretty good week.”
But the pressure cauldron continues for the Whale (31-24-2-6) as they complete a torturous stretch of 10 road games in 12 starts Tuesday night at league-leading Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (45-17-0-0), which has won nine of 12 games, capped by a 4-1 victory over the Hershey Bears on Sunday that increased their East Division lead to eight points over the two-time defending Calder Cup champions. Center/captain Ryan Craig had two goals and an assist as the Penguins continued their season-long mastery of the Bears. The Penguins were 2-9-0-1 against the Bears last season but have improved to 6-1-0-0 this season, assuring themselves of a winning record against their in-state rivals.
The Penguins are missing three of their top five scorers – center Dustin Jeffrey (17 goals, 28 assists) and wings Nick Johnson (20, 19) and Eric Tangradi (18, 15) – because of numerous injuries to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but they still have plenty of firepower in left wing Brett Sterling (20, 21), Craig (16, 22), left wings Tim Wallace (16, 16) and Chris Collings (11, 16), center Joe Vitale (8, 19) and former Wolf Pack defenseman Corey Potter (2, 25). And the Penguins have allowed an AHL-low 141 goals thanks largely to the goaltending of All-Star Brad Thiessen (27-6-0, 1.87 goals-against average, .924 save percentage, six shutouts), the AHL goalie of the month in February, and veteran John Curry (18-11-0, 2.49, .903, one shutout).
The Penguins, who started the season with nine straight wins, will be out to avenge a 6-3 loss to the Whale at the XL Center on Jan. 16. And the Whale again could have only 17 skaters, one under the limit. Williams, Kolarik, Garlock and injured defensemen Tomas Kundratek and Jyri Niemi skated Monday, while wing Chris McKelvie received treatment and center Todd White and defenseman Michael Del Zotto rested. Gernander said Williams and Kolarik are the closest to possibly returning Tuesday night.
The Whale is 7-3-0-1 with the one game left in the difficult 12-game stretch in which they had 10-hour bus rides to and from a Toronto/Hamilton set that began the long trek and their only airplane flight this season, to Charlotte, N.C., for games Feb. 24 and 26 that they lost 5-1 and 1-0. It earned the tired, ailing Whale a day off Monday before a 31/2-hour bus ride to Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
After Tuesday night, the Whale plays 10 of their final 16 games at the XL Center, starting Friday night against Hershey (39-21-1-3), which begins a four-game road trip at Portland on Tuesday night. The Bears are led by perennial All-Star center Keith Aucoin (15 goals, 48 assists), who led the league in scoring last season (106 points) and is fourth this season behind former Wolf Pack players Corey Locke of Binghamton (73 points) and Alexandre Giroux of Oklahoma City (65) and Mark Mancini of the Portland Pirates (64), with the first two on recall to Edmonton and Columbus. Aucoin gets lots of support from wings Brian Willsie (25, 30), Kyle Greentree (22, 28), Andrew Gordon (22, 24) and former Wolf Pack Boyd Kane (22, 22).
Former Wolf Pack defensemen Lawrence Nycholat (5, 22) and Brian Fahey (3, 18) head the blueline corps and work the points on the power play, and veterans Dany Sabourin (14-9-0, 2.45 GAA, .908 save percentage, two shutouts) and Nolan Schaefer (10-17-1, 3.06, .898, no shutouts) are handling the goaltending. Schaefer was acquired on loan from the Boston Bruins on Friday.
The Whale then plays Worcester at home on Saturday night and returns to the DCU Center on Sunday afternoon.
Let the fun continue.
BRUINS’ WHITFIELD NAMED AHL PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Providence center Trent Whitfield was named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week on Monday after having a hand in seven of the Bruins’ 10 goals in two home victories.
Whitfield entered the weekend with only two points in his previous 11 games, but he had two goals and one assist in a 4-2 victory over Charlotte, which came into the game on a six-game points streak. He then had two goals and two assists in a 6-0 rout of Bridgeport, including a shorthanded goal and assists on two power-play goals. His seven points were as many as he had in his previous 18 games combined.
Whitfield, who missed the first three months of the season recovering from an injury sustained during the summer, has nine goals and nine assists in 29 games since returning to the Bruins.
The Whale nominated Dupont, who had six assists in the three wins, including four Sunday that were personal highs for assists and points in a pro game. Other nominees included Willsie, former Wolf Pack forwards Nigel Dawes (Hamilton), Matt Ford (Lake Erie) and Patrick Rissmiller (Rochester), former Rangers wing Ales Kotalik (Abbotsford) and South Windsor native Jon DiSalvatore (Houston). DiSalvatore, the Aeros captain, had two goals in a 5-4 loss to visiting Abbotsford on Sunday, assuring an eighth consecutive 20-goal season. Kotalik scored the winner with 46 seconds left in regulation. … The disbanding of the Falcons’ top line was completed Sunday when the Columbus Blue Jackets recalled center Kyle Wilson. Last week, the Blue Jackets traded former Wolf Pack wing Dane Byers to the Phoenix Coyotes and Tom Sestito to the Philadelphia Flyers. It helps explain why the Falcons were thrashed 6-1 by the Portland Pirates, who moved within two points of the Atlantic Division-leading Manchester Monarchs with four games in hand. Not to mention the crushing losses to the Whale. … The AHL’s Clear Day deadline passed Monday, as all 30 teams had to submit 22-man lists by 3 p.m. Only players on a Clear Day roster are eligible to compete in the remainder of the regular season and Calder Cup playoffs unless emergency conditions arise as a result of recall, injury or suspension. Teams also can add signed junior players or players on amateur tryout contracts but only after their seasons are complete. Clear Day lists will be posted Tuesday morning at www.theahl.com. The Rangers reassigned and then recalled wing Mats Zuccarello and defenseman Ryan McDonagh last week so they would be eligible for the Whale’s list.
JERSEY AUCTION TO BENEFIT MARCH OF DIMES
Saturday could be a hat trick of pleasure and benefit for Whale fans. They not only can watch their favorites hopefully win just their second XL Center game since Feb. 6 in a key game against Worcester, but they also can win players’ jerseys and help a great cause at the same time.
During the game, fans can bid on jerseys on display throughout the evening. Winners will be announced at the end of the game and invited on the ice to receive their jersey, meet the players and have photos taken. Proceeds will benefit the March of Dimes, which works to help develop stronger, healthier babies. The auction has raised nearly $20,000 in the first two years.
“The annual jersey auction has been a great event for our March of Dimes family and the hockey community,” said Deb Poudrier, executive director of the March of Dimes Greater Hartford Division. “The Whale organization has been an incredible supporter of the March of Dimes, not only with the jersey auction but as a March for Babies sponsor and team as well. They truly are a great community partner.”
The March of Dimes is the leading non-profit organization for pregnancy and baby health. With chapters nationwide, the March of Dimes works to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality. Visit www.marchofdimes.com or www.nacersano.org for the latest resources and information.
HOCKEY MINISTRIES NIGHT AT WHALE GAME
Hockey Ministries International Northeast is sponsoring 2011 Faith & Family Night at the Whale’s game against the Charlotte Checkers on March 25. Upper bowl seats are $10, and Scarlet Fade will perform a postgame concert.
To order tickets, contact AHL Chapel Coordinator Rick Mitera at 860-817-6440 or firstname.lastname@example.org. When someone buys a ticket through Hockey Ministries, they receive a $2 coupon for parking. For more information on Hockey Ministries, visit www.hockeyministriesnortheast.org.
WHALE TO HONOR HOWE FAMILY ON MARCH 26
The Whale will host “Howe Family Night” at the XL Center on March 26 against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. The No. 9 of “Mr. Hockey,” one of seven numbers in the XL Center rafters, will be lowered and then raised and re-retired as he and his sons, Mark and Marty, whom he played with for seven seasons in Houston and Hartford, look on. The matriarch of the family, Colleen Howe, who died in 2009, will be honored.
“That old (jersey) is a little worn,” Baldwin Jr. said. “I think we’ll have a big crowd. I’m not a morbid person at all. I love Ronnie Francis (the only Hall of Famer to play mostly with the Whalers), but Gordie is the one who put the team on the map. He needs to have the respect of the people coming out to see him, and it’ll be a great opportunity for it.”
Howe’s No. 9 is in the rafters with the Whalers’ No. 2 (Rick Ley), 5 (Ulf Samuelsson), 10 (Ron Francis), 11 (Dineen) and 19 (John McKenzie). Gernander’s No. 12 is the only number to be retired in the 14-year history of the AHL team.
The Howes played together for the first time with the Houston Aeros in 1973 before coming to Hartford and signing with the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers in 1977. Howe ended his legendary 32-year career in the Whalers’ first NHL season (1979-80), when he had 15 goals and 26 assists and was named a NHL All-Star for the 23rd time while helping the Whalers make the playoffs at 52 years old.
Fans who did not attend the Whale’s game against Providence at Rentschler Field in East Hartford because of the weather can redeem their tickets for one to “Howe Family Night” or another game of their choice. If fans want to redeem a ticket, they should contact Baldwin at email@example.com.
CALLAHAN LEADS FORMER WOLF PACK STANDOUTS FOR RANGERS
Former Wolf Pack right wing and assistant captain Ryan Callahan seems destined to succeed Trumbull native Chris Drury as captain of the Rangers. Callahan demonstrated why in spades on Sunday as he, Zuccarello and former Wolf Pack center Artem Anisimov accounted for all the goals for the Rangers, who also rolled a lucky seven in a 7-0 demolition of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Starting with his first goal only 51 seconds into the game off a pass from former Wolf Pack linemate Brandon Dubinsky, Callahan had his first hat trick in 272 NHL games and then added another goal and an assist as the Rangers notched their first win in five meetings with the Flyers this season. Zuccarello had his first two-goal game in the NHL, and Anisimov scored once. Callahan has 16 points (10 goals, six assists) in 16 games since he returned Feb. 1 after missing six weeks with a broken left hand.
“(Callahan) is emerging as one of our top leaders … (with) a lot of those intangibles, not so much the flash, but the intangibles, to our club,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “That’s what we are as a team. The team isn’t a bunch of flash. It’s a hard-working, grinding type team. It certainly falls into place with Cally leading the way.”
Wing Vinny Prospal concurred, saying, “Just an awesome performance (by Callahan), on national TV (NBC), and I couldn’t be happier for a guy like that because it’s just an understatement, how hard he works, every game. To be able to do it in such a prime game, on the national Sunday, it’s just great for him. I’m very, very happy for him, and he just shows what kind of leader and what kind of person he is, and how important he is for this team.”
Henrik Lundqvist had 24 saves for his NHL-leading ninth shutout as the Rangers ended a four-game home losing streak. McDonagh returned after missing one game with a sore knee, assisted on Zuccarello’s first goal, blocked two shots and finished plus-4 in 21:55. Wing Marian Gaborik also returned after missing two weeks and six games with a concussion. He had four shots but no points in 14:28.
Tortorella wouldn’t say why the Rangers wore their white uniforms at home for the first time this season, but it seemed obvious it was to change their luck at Madison Square Garden. To wear white, the Rangers had to get the Flyers to agree to wear their orange home sweaters, which isn’t likely to happen again.